Neil Harbisson: The Artist Who Hears Colours and Sees Sounds

Over the years, humans have been employing technology to change their physical and mental abilities from the production and use of artificial body parts to medicines.

British born artist, Neil Harbisson, the World’s First Cyborg has the peculiar ability to see in ultraviolet light through an antenna similar to an implant that improves his perception of light and provides him with super-senses.

Neil Harbisson became the first government recognized cyborg in the world after the British government granted him permission to wear his headgear for his photograph on his international passport.

He described the technological augmentation as a natural strategy, and probably a necessity for humans to adapt to uncertain future.

Over the years, humans have been employing technology to change their physical and mental abilities from the production and use of artificial body parts to medicines.

Neil Harbison - World’s First Cyborg

Now, with the nippy progress made in technology, some people have embraced human augmentation as a way of expressing themselves and experiencing the world in a completely unique way.

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33 year old Neil Harbisson, is part of this group of people. Harbisson was born with Achromatopsia (ACHM) also known as partial or total absence of color vision – color blindness. Harbisson considers this be an advantage, although he wants to understand the different dimensions of vision.

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In the last 13 years, Neil Harbisson has been able to hear visible and invisible light waves. An antenna-like sensor implanted in his head translates different wavelengths into vibrations on his skull, which he then interprets as sounds.

Color Blind Artist Who Can Hear Color and See Sounds

Neil Harbisson describes what is like to be a Cyborg

There is no difference between the software and my brain, or my antenna and any other body part. Being united to cybernetics makes me feel that I am technology.

The definition that [scientist] Manfred Clynes gave for “cyborg” in 1960 was that in order to explore and survive in new environments, we had to change ourselves instead of changing our environment. Now, we do have the tools to change ourselves. We can add new senses, new organs.

Why He Created the Senses for Himself

The aim was never to overcome anything. Seeing in greyscale has many advantages. I have better night vision. I memorize shapes more readily, and I’m not easily fooled by camouflages. And black-and-white photocopies are cheaper. I didn’t feel there was a physical problem, and I never wanted to change my sight. I wanted to create a new organ for seeing.

What are the Most Unusual Aspects of His Extrasensory Abilities

At first I could just sense the visual spectrum of light, but I’ve upgraded it to include the infrared and ultraviolet [UV] spectra. One thing is being able tell if it’s a good or bad day to sunbathe. If I sense there’s a high level of ultraviolet light, it’s not a very good day, so I know to wait a bit or put on some extra sun cream.

When I go walking in the forest, I like the ones with high levels of UV. They’re loud and high-pitched. One would think the forest is peaceful and quiet, but when there’s ultraviolet flowers all around, it’s very noisy.

The Most Memorable Questions from people about his Antenna

I don’t get any particular questions, but what people think my antenna is changes with time. In 2004, people thought it was a reading light; they’d ask me if I could turn it on. In 2007, it was a hands-free phone, then in 2008 and 2009, it was a GoPro camera. In 2015, many children thought it was some kind of extendable selfie stick.

Last year, people started yelling “Pokemon!” at me. In a small village in Italy, an old man asked me if I could do cappuccinos with it. If people start instead asking, What can you sense with it? I know it will mean it’s become normal, and that people understand it’s a sensory organ.

Has his Experience of the World shifted since He Got the Implant?

My understanding of the world has become more profound. The more you extend your senses, the more that you realize exists. If you’re in the same house for years, there’s a repetition of what you perceive there. If you add a new sense, though, the house becomes new again.

What about his Self-perception?

I feel connected with nature in a stronger way. I consider myself trans-species: Having an antenna is common for other species, or sensing in infrared and ultraviolet, but it’s not traditional for humans.

Is there any other Technology he believes could break the Boundaries of what is considered Human?

Most projects I see are chips, software or apps that give you the intelligence, not the sense. We’ve been giving senses to all these machines instead of ourselves, like cars with the sense of what’s behind them, and we can’t even do that.

Imagine something like an earring that could give you 360 degrees of perception of your surroundings, and maybe it could buzz to tell you someone’s behind you. It’s strange to me that simple things like this aren’t happening.

Should Governments place restrictions on how People can modify themselves?

I think we should all have the freedom to design ourselves as much as we want. Each sense depends on the individual. In the same way we all have eyes or ears, we all use them in different ways, and people use them in a good and bad ways.

His opinion on augmentation ultimately influencing human evolution

If, by the end of the century, we start printing our own sense organs, implanted with DNA instead of using chips, the possibility of having children born with these senses is real. If their parents have modified their genes or made new organs, then yes, it’s just the beginning of a renaissance for our species.

Neil Harbisson was interviewed by National Geographic about the benefits of extra senses.

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Neil Harbisson: The Artist Who Hears Colours and Sees Sounds

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